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In Egypt, state news anchor in head scarf causes a stir

Egypt's lifting of an implicit ban on veiled TV anchors is seen as an end to discrimination, but some worry it could lead to limits on women's freedoms.

September 03, 2012|By Reem Abdellatif, Los Angeles Times
  • Fatma Nabil is the first presenter to appear on Egyptian state television in a head scarf.
Fatma Nabil is the first presenter to appear on Egyptian state television… (Egyptian TV )

CAIRO — Adorned with delicate makeup, an anchorwoman wearing a head scarf appeared Sunday on Egypt's state television for the first time in its five-decade history.

Wearing a cream-colored scarf, Fatma Nabil appeared poised as she read the latest updates on the drafting of Egypt's post-revolution Constitution on the noon news program, followed by a male anchor.

Salah Abdel Maksoud, the country's new information minister and a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, announced Saturday that a largely unspoken ban on female news presenters wearing traditional Islamic head scarves was being lifted and that more covered female anchors would follow Nabil on state-owned networks.

Under President Hosni Mubarak, who was ousted last year, female Muslim journalists often complained that women who wanted to wear head scarves on the air faced discrimination. Although privately funded satellite channels sometimes permitted such anchors, their absence from state television was largely seen as an effort to distance Islamists from public life under Mubarak's secular regime.

"To be fair, veiled anchors were severely discriminated against. There were many veiled women with the right qualifications but they weren't allowed to appear on television," said Sally Zohney, a member of Baheya Ya Masr, an Egyptian women's rights movement founded after the uprising against Mubarak.

The Information Ministry, which monitors and controls state television broadcasts as well as other local media outlets, was regarded as a mouthpiece for the Mubarak regime as it sought to limit the voice of opposition groups, particularly the banned yet influential Muslim Brotherhood.

Maksoud was appointed to head the key ministry by President Mohamed Morsi, whose Cabinet was sworn in last month, as the new Islamist leader seeks to wrestle control of state institutions from Mubarak loyalists.

Although many Egyptians welcome the decision to hire veiled anchors as a positive step toward ending discriminatory policies, the change is also seen as a move by state media to garner support for Morsi, who was a Brotherhood member when he ran for president. Some also fear the decision reflects changes in Egyptian society that could lead to limits on the personal freedoms of non-veiled women.

"My concern now is the growing factor among viewers that this is how a woman should look like in order to be respectful or modest — this is what is scary," Zohney said. "I'm against discrimination completely, but that does not mean society should start harassing non-veiled girls."

Mubarak's regime frequently detained members of the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists who it said were seeking to overthrow the government.

Abdellatif is a special correspondent.

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